David Changas is an RTC correspondent. He filed this report after last night’s game between Lipscomb and Belmont in Nashville.
When he lost his three leading scorers to graduation, including standout guards Kerron Johnson and Ian Clark, many assumed that Belmont coach Rick Byrd would see his team take a step back from last year’s OVC championship squad. But this is Rick Byrd, and rebuilding at this point in the program’s existence is no longer a concern. As evidenced by Sunday’s win over North Carolina in Chapel Hill, his latest group is once again likely the team to beat in the OVC, and a return to the Big Dance for the seventh time in nine seasons appears to be a distinct possibility.
On Wednesday night, the Bruins backed up their win over the Tar Heels with a resounding 94-64 thumping of cross-town rival Lipscomb in the season’s second “Battle of the Boulevard,” giving Belmont its NCAA-best 22nd consecutive home win. And in getting off to a strong start that includes not only the North Carolina win, but also a home victory over an Indiana State team that crushed Notre Dame in South Bend, Byrd’s squad is proving that it has simply reloaded. Now led in the backcourt by the solid duo of Reece Chamberlain and Craig Bradshaw, both of whom saw valuable minutes last season, Belmont relies on a stronger front line than it had last season. J.J. Mann, whom Byrd recently called one of the hardest workers and most competitive players he’s coached, proved his mettle by hitting the game-winning three against North Carolina. The senior forward looks poised to lead the Bruins in scoring this season, and his role as a vocal leader has increased with the departure of Johnson and Clark.